Does Purple Preclude Piety?: Jacques de Vitry’s Disapproval of Secular Canonesses

By Meghan Lescault

In looking for clerical supporters of medieval non-cloistered religious women, the name of Jacques de Vitry (c. 1160–1240) may come to mind. Jacques, a regular canon, bishop, scholar, preacher, and author was a vocal promoter of the beguines, a role which may be seen in his sermons and his Vita of Marie d’Oignies. His enthusiasm for the non-cloistered, however, did not extend to all such women, and certainly not to the secular canonesses.

Secular canonesses were women from noble families who held prebends attached to collegiate churches where they had liturgical duties. They could renounce their prebends at any time and leave the community, usually in order to marry. They have received little attention in modern religious historiography, partly because they have been associated with a lack of traditional piety, a view that has its roots in the minds of some of the canonesses’ medieval contemporaries. As Jacques de Vitry holds such a view, a piece of his writing offers an early example of rigid disapproval of their form of life. Other ecclesiastical figures took issue with the canonesses,[1] seemingly because they were not nuns despite bearing some resemblance to them, but Jacques’ disdain is more surprising at first sight given his support for the beguines. It may be the case, however, that Jacques’ admiration for the modest life of the beguine was the cause of his apparent distaste for the wealthy canonesses.

Jacques devoted several chapters of his Historia occidentalis to various religious groups. A brief glance at the titles of these chapters may well reveal his view of the “ideal” religious life. Straightforward explanations such as De cysterciensibus and De canonicis Sancti Victoris stand in contrast to the title of the thirty-first chapter: De irregularitate secularium canonicarum. While “irregularity” in the ecclesiastical context means that the secular canonesses did not follow a rule, one cannot help but notice the pejorative sense it has for Jacques when reading what follows.

In describing the canonesses, Jacques paints a picture of opulence, laxity, and immodesty. He places secular nobility and religious piety in contrast to each other and elaborates on the canonesses’ material comfort:

Hee siquidem adeo personas accipiunt, quod non nisi filias militum et nobilium in suo collegio uolunt recipere, religioni et morum nobilitati et seculi nobilitatem preferentes. Purpura autem et bysso et pellibus grisiis et aliis iocunditatis sue uestibus induuntur, circumdate uarietatibus cum tortis crinibus et ornatu pretioso circumamicte ut similitude templi, gaudentes cum gaudentibus, liberales ualde et hospitales.[2]

If indeed they do accept people, they do not wish to receive anyone except daughters of knights and nobles into their society, preferring the nobility of the world to religion and nobility of mores. Moreover, they wear purple cotton and gray fur and other garments that delight them. They are enveloped in clothing of various colors with their hair curled and are covered in costly embellishment like a temple. They rejoice with the joyful and are very generous and hospitable.[3]

While this last aspect of his description has a potentially positive tone, Jacques quickly makes his overall position clear by discussing the sumptuous nature of their feasts and their freedom to leave the community for a time and to visit with their families and friends. He disapproves of their liturgical partnership with secular canons and portrays its apparent dangers in no uncertain terms:

Ipse uero, uelut sirens in delubris uoluptatis uocem iocunditatis annuntiantes, ipsos canonicos, dum superari nesciunt, fessos et fatigatos frequenter reddiderunt. Similiter et in processionibus, composite et ornate, canonici ex una parte et domine ex alia parte concinentes, procedunt.[4]

Indeed, just as Sirens proclaiming their call of delight in temples of pleasure, they have frequently wearied and tired the canons who are not aware that they are overcome. And similarly in processions, they proceed in an orderly and splendid manner while singing together, the canons from one side and the ladies from the other.

As if their status vis-à-vis the clerics was not enough, Jacques goes on to discuss the canonesses’ ability to leave their positions and marry, likely holding this in contrast to forms of life that required a permanent commitment. If his view of these women was not clear by this point, he lays all of his cards on the table with the following statement near the end of the chapter:

Aliquas autem ex ispsarum congregatione uidimus, que, saniori use consilio de Hur chaldeorum et de medio Babylonis fugientes, postquam mundi incendia euaserunt, sumpto cysterciensis ordinis habitu, ad magnum perfectionis cumulum peruenerunt.[5]

We have seen some of them who have taken sounder advice and have fled from Ur of the Chaldees and from the middle of Babylon, and after they have escaped the fire of the world, they have taken the habit of the Cistercian Order and have reached the high height of perfection.

Jacques clearly does not condone what he regards as the too worldly life of the secular canoness, and he goes so far as to promote the Cistercian Order as the salvific antidote. His identification of female monasticism with “the high height of perfection,” however, stands in contradiction to his admiration for the beguines, whose lives certainly differed from those of the Cistercians in many aspects. It seems to be the case that Jacques has a vision of ideal female piety that incorporates characteristics of cloistered women and beguines alike but does not accommodate the customs of the canonesses. This leaves the question of whether curled hair, abundant food, and coed liturgical processions can truly determine the presence or absence of piety and religious devotion. This is an important question for scholars to raise when revisiting such groups of women.


[1] Examples include the French Cluniac canonist Guilelmus de Monte Laudano, the Italian canonist Johannes Andreae, and the Italian canonist Cardinal Franciscus Zabarella. See Elizabeth Makowski, A Pernicious Sort of Woman: Quasi-religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), especially chapter 1.

[2] Jacques de Vitry, Historia Occidentalis, chapter 31. All Latin text is from Jacques de Vitry, The Historia Occidentalis of Jacques de Vitry, trans. John Frederick Hinnebusch, O.P. (Fribourg: University Press, 1972).

[3] Translations are my own.

[4] Jacques de Vitry, Historia Occidentalis, chapter 31.

[5] Ibid.


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